The copyright infringement lawsuit against Led Zeppelin over the group’s iconic epic song “Stairway to Heaven” is heading to trial, thanks to an order issued Friday by a federal judge in Los Angeles — a development that the plaintiff’s attorney calls “a complete game-changer.”
On Friday, U.S. District Judge R. Gary Klausner largely denied Led Zeppelin’s motion for summary judgment and cleared the way for a trial next month. Francis Alexander Malofiy, of the Francis Alexander law firm, said that the order tilts the suit in favor of his client, Michael Skidmore, trustee of the Randy Craig Wolfe Trust.
“Now, the legal landscape is favorable to plaintiffs, and we’re pleased with the court’s decision,” Malofiy told TheWrap on Tuesday.
Klausner granted Led Zeppelin’s motion for summary judgment on a number of relatively minor claims but importantly denied the band’s motion as to the copyright infringement claim, which stands at the center of the suit. In doing so, he held that “Stairway” does bear “substantial similarity” to the song “Taurus,” recorded in 1967 by the California group Spirit.
Thus, a trial, set for May 10 in L.A., can go forward, with possibly millions of dollars in royalties from one of the most iconic songs in rock history at stake.
In an interview with TheWrap on Tuesday, Malofiy downplayed the possibility of a settlement in the case, noting that he’s “very pleased” that the case will go to trial.
“We’re very, very pleased that we will be going forward to trial. From our perspective, this case has always been, from Day 1, about giving credit where credit was due, and we’re one step closer to seeing that goal through,” he said. “So, from our perspective, it’s very encouraging.”
This isn’t the first time that Jimmy Page and company have been accused of inappropriately borrowing from other artists’ work, and Malofiy said that he will make the prior accusations a part of his trial strategy.
“Of course we will,” he said. “This was their songwriting process. … They had a definable songwriting process, and that process was very clear: They would take covers of music they liked, they would jam on them for a while and then they would try to change them enough to make it their own. The problem is, that’s not called songwriting; that’s called song-ripping. In this instance, Led Zeppelin has a unique, unfavorable history that they regularly took music from other musicians and artists and failed to give that credit.”
Klausner’s ruling found enough similarity in the two songs to proceed to trial. “The similarity consists of repeated A-minor descending chromatic bass lines lasting 13 seconds and separated by a bridge of either seven or eight measures,” Klausner wrote. “Moreover, the similarity appears in the first two minutes of each song, arguably the most recognizable and important segments of the respective works.”
The judge’s order also noted that Spirit and Led Zeppelin “performed at the same venue on the same day at least three times between 1968 and 1970” and at a 1969 festival on different days.
The suit began in May 2014, when the trustee for Spirit frontman Randy Craig Wolfe — a.k.a. Randy California, who died in 1997 — sued Led Zeppelin for copyright infringement.
Despite the overall favorable ruling, Klausner did deal a slight setback to the plaintiff. Klausner ruled that “any potential recovery should be reduced by 50%,” as per an exclusive songwriter agreement entered into by Wolfe in 1967.
Lawyers for the Wolfe trust didn’t oppose that argument, Klausner said, “Therefore, the Court grants summary judgment on this issue and holds that Plaintiff, as a beneficial owner, is entitled to only 50% of the recovery.”
You can read the full 20-page order here.
Listen to a side-by-side comparison of the two songs below.
Pamela Chelin contributed to this report.